Do you find single limb exercises easy? You’re probably doing it wrong
The importance of unilateral training
Have you ever been given a single leg or single arm exercise and found it so easy that you wondered what exactly it was doing for you? Well, if it seems too good to be true... you know the drill.
There's more to single limb training than meets the eye. You can be totally wasting your time if you're not concentrating or don't know how to do them correctly.
I've had clients who have spent weeks trying to get that left glute to do something during a single leg RDL. But when it all falls into place, it's pretty great.
What is unilateral training?
Individually training your limbs. Simple as that!
But it’s not that simple in terms of the movement.
The thing is, if it seems too easy, you’re probably doing it wrong.
Unilateral movements are often highly technical in nature, requiring acute concentration and very specific activations.
What are some examples?
Lower: split squat, step ups, single leg Romanian Deadlift, single leg lunge, Bulgarian split squat, single leg hip thrusts.
Upper: single arm pulldowns, single arm seated rows, one arm dumbbell row, single arm shoulder press etc. Generally harder than bi lateral.
Why are they so hard?
Because of the narrower base of support, balance and coordination play a bigger role. And because it requires more neuro-muscular feedback to maintain the balance, it also requires more concentration ( which can make you more tired mentally).
The trickiest part is switching on of the correct muscles at the correct times as you go through the motion. It can be mentally draining as you work to connect your brain to the right muscle groups and to understand the feeling of which ones are doing the work.
Let's look at an example: The humble Step Up.
Seems simple. You walk up and down steps all day long, how hard can this be? You bounce up and back and feel nothing.
You might already be using your quads, hamstrings and glutes but when you’re performing a single leg straight step up, people don’t think about how they actually activate the quads, glutes and hamstrings to really feel the burn.
You need to think about the knee driving over the toes so that you can balance on the one foot and really isolate the leg so that you use just that one quad to drive up.
As you straighten the leg, you need to squeeze the glutes and the quad at the top to help you maintain balance.
As you lower down, in a controlled fashion, the hamstring should be fighting.
It is possible to go through this motion and not be thinking and getting it wrong. You need to really engage your mind to focus on squeezing the right muscles at the right times to make it work.
Why are unilateral movements great?
Every time you do these movements, you get the benefit of working on your core stabilisers. In order to complete these movements and keep your balance, the body must activate your core so you don’t fall over.
They can help even out some of the imbalances in your body that we all deal with.
A fantastic benefit is that it improves your compound lifts by improving your technique overall, along with your mobility and stability.
A long-lasting benefit is to help you become more connected to your body and the specific muscles that you’re working - the all-important brain/muscle connection.
I also like to use these movements for injury prevention (or pre-hab). For example, if you play a change of direction sport, certain single leg exercises can help strengthen the muscles that stabilise the knee joint.
How to do it right
Before you do a single limb exercise, make sure you know what muscles need to be engaged at various points during the movement. Keep focusing on it throughout your reps, make yourself a mental checklist for different points and especially to keep reminding yourself as you get tired.
If you’re unsure, ask a professional for help.
This is a case of a bit of pain for gain... If it really burns or you feel like you’re about to cramp, it means you’re really connecting to that muscle.